This article was originally published on Harian Kompas, with slight modification.

The Supreme Court Judge, Takdir Rahmadi, in June 2016 rejected the appeal of PT Kalista Alam that had been sentenced to pay IDR 366 billion for the damages done in Rawa Tripa, Aceh. The Supreme Court in November 2016 also won the environmental damage lawsuit brought by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) against PT Merbau Pelalawan Lestari, sentenced to pay a fine amounting to IDR 16 trillion for environmental damage caused by the company's operations. Such huge amount has become a milestone in Indonesia’s law enforcement to fight environmental degradation in the country.

The two verdicts were made based on the in dubio pro natura doctrine, which means, when in doubt, side with the environment. In Indonesia, this doctrine has been in use since 2003, even before the issuance of the Environmental Law No. 32/2009, when the Bandung District Court decided to provide compensation to the landslide victims in Mandalawangi Hill, Garut. Defendant in this case was the government, including state-owned forestry firm Perum Perhutani.

Referring to the 2015 Forestry Statistics and the interpretation of Landsat 8 images issued by the MoEF’s Directorate of Forest Resources Inventory and Monitoring, approximately 26.2 million hectares of forest in the Forest Estate no longer have tree stands. On the other hand, the areas for other land use (APL), managed by local government, consists of 7.6 million hectares of forested land that are of good quality and fit the primary and secondary natural forests classification. The statistics and satellite imagery also show that 2.5 million hectares of primary forest and 4.1 million hectares of secondary forest are located in Forest Estate, but legally convertible into non-forested land. Legal conversion from forest to non-forest in the Forest Estate and APL is often referred to as planned deforestation. Approximately 14.2 million hectares of forest fall under the planned deforestation category, with potential greenhouse gas emissions amounting to 6.5 Gt CO2 eq or twice bigger than the Indonesia’s total emissions in 2030.

Using the in dubio pro natura doctrine in forest management, it would be wise if planned deforestation of 14.2 million hectares is exchanged with the land from the Forest Estate without forest stands, which amounted to 26.2 million hectares based on the 2015 Forestry Statistics. If Indonesia needs land from the Forest Estate for agrarian reform purposes, the statistics suggested that 6.4 million hectares of convertible production forests (HPK) without forest stands were available to be used as donor for agrarian reform. By applying this method, we will avoid further encroachment to forests.

Papua's Forests

If we use the in dubio pro natura doctrine in Papua as the last frontier in forest conservation and biodiversity, we can determine various environmentally-friendly forest management options for concessions in Merauke, Mappi, and Boven Digoel districts, which have not been utilized for more than 3 years despite the issuance of licenses.

To provide an illustration, the author conducted a geospatial analysis on publicly-available data from Greenpeace Indonesia and Yayasan Pusaka from Papua. The analysis on two plantation and forestry groups in Merauke, Mappi and Boven Digul districts suggested that a total of 424,633 hectares of oil and timber concessions are located on land that can be legally converted. However, 62% of such concession area falls under the category of primary forests with intact forest stands and rich biodiversity. Analysis on the tree cover loss and GLAD alerts on Global Forest Watch platform also showed that only 13 percent of the tree cover in those concessions experienced changes, suggesting that the remaining forests remained undisturbed or widely known as an idle or abandoned concession.

In the spirit of environmental protection, Indonesia can establish at least two management options. First, creating a cash transfer scheme to the regions through regional fund transfer (can be in the form of Regional Incentive Fund or Dana Insentif Daerah, Special Allocation Fund or Dana Alokasi Khusus, or other forms of transfer) for forests conservation. The fund will expand the regional fiscal capacity and enable community groups that maintain forest stands to receive direct compensation. This fiscal capacity scheme demands the responsibility of local governments to develop forest-based livelihood programs and promote non-timber forest products. The fund will also strengthen the local government's bargaining position when private sectors offer to secure concessions on the forest areas. This scheme will also strengthen businesses’ movement to be more sustainable.

Second, creating forests conservation concessions by exchanging the idle and/or abandoned concession. In this scheme, concession holders will develop a program for maintaining forest stands and utilizing non-timber forest products together with local communities. However, this scheme requires the creation of a national carbon market that will be a source of funding and revenues based on the maintenance of forest stands.

President Joko Widodo has mentioned in various opportunities that forests protection must go hand in hand with welfare improvement of those living inside and around forest. For forest management in Indonesia, let us side with the environment by swapping degraded forests inside the Forest Estate with primary forests inside APL. For Papua, let us side with the environment by returning the idle and abandoned concessions to the government as a Forest Estate for the welfare of the people of Papua.